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NASCAR'S rollicking drama

by Eddie Pells

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- With a swan dive into the waiting arms of his crew, Dale Earnhardt Jr. played the part of the jubilant hero in white, filling the void left by his father, the beloved man in black.

If only Earnhardt's triumph Saturday night at the Pepsi 400 had been plucked from a storybook, and not the life-and-death world of auto racing, the evening might have been perfect.

"Teresa is going to get a lot of calls from the major networks trying to get the rights to this," Earnhardt said, referring to his stepmother.

He was only half-joking.

After all, what better setting for another dramatic twist to NASCAR's emotion-filled season than Daytona, in the first race back since Earnhardt's fatal crash?

"I think that's perfect," driver Rusty Wallace said. "I can't think of a better script to play than to come back to the track that took his father away from him. To have him be able to honor his father with the victory is pretty cool. I wish I would have been the one shoving him across the line."

Instead, as fate would have it, that honor fell to teammate Michael Waltrip. He's the driver who got the push from Earnhardt Jr. at the finish of the Daytona 500, while the elder Earnhardt hung back in third and protected them both before his crash in Turn 4.

Waltrip was the first to reach Earnhardt in the infield, where Junior jumped out of the car and thrust his arms in the air. Before that, he spun doughnuts in the grass. For a second, it seemed to be an eerie reprise of his father's own raucous infield celebration after a stirring breakthrough at the Daytona 500 in 1998.

"This place is part of our lives -- more so than any other place in the world," Waltrip said. "We weren't more emotional than normal; we were just normal -- as normal as we could be since we lost our friend."

That friend, The Intimidator, surely would have loved what he saw, had he been there to witness the final laps.

Junior got pushed back to seventh place following a late yellow flag. When the green came out, there were six laps left.

Earnhardt's car had been dominating all night. Still, the moves he made to regain the lead seemed more like the movies than real restrictor-plate racing.

Darting in and out of the pack alone -- racing without the drafting help that is so vital at Daytona -- it took Earnhardt only 1 1/2 laps to overcome all six cars.

Sure, it was bold and exciting. It was also a practically unheard-of strategy for this kind of racing, where restrictor plates on the carburetors hold speeds down, and drivers who leave the pack without a partner often lose dozens of spots before they get back in line.

Naturally, that kind of unreal dominance left room for skeptics who wondered if Earnhardt's victory really was too good to be true.

"You don't go by yourself on the outside and make that kind of time up," said Johnny Benson, who led after the restart, but wound up finishing 13th. "But it's OK. It was good that Junior won. I know he wanted to win, and he got it done."

Whatever the reason, Earnhardt really did have the best car all week.

It showed during Friday night's Happy Hour practice, where he put on a show, going to the front of a long line and never letting up, as the crowd roared its approval.

Come the race, nothing changed. Earnhardt pulled to the front on lap 27, and led most of the rest of the way -- a staggering 116 of the 160 laps.

"My car was the best car here, I think you all saw that," Earnhardt said. "I was just trying to stay in the right line and keep the RPMs up on the car. It seemed like I could get out there, three or four car lengths ahead, and it would take them a lap and a half to catch back up."

He conceded such dominance can make for monotonous racing. Still, it was hard to be bored on this special night.

It figures that Junior's win can only help NASCAR. This sport is, after all, still smitten by the Earnhardt name.

That was obvious from the sea of red, white and black that filled the stands; the hundreds of flowers, pictures and messages strewn around a makeshift monument outside Turn 4; the overwhelming roar that filled the track when Junior crossed the finish line.

The loss of his dad in February focused much of the attention on Earnhardt, a 26-year-old who is still getting comfortable in the role of fan favorite and patriarch.

Going winless so far this year didn't help anything.

"You start to feel a little pressure that you won't win for them and give them a reason to root for you," Earnhardt said. "So it's a good feeling. That's why I pulled down on the front straightaway and jumped out of the car. That was for the fans and nobody else."

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